A long, long time ago, in a political universe far, far away, Republicans proudly wore the “daddy party” stereotype, proclaiming their supposedly implicit authority in matters of national security, moral and financial responsibility, and, possibly most of all, their deep respect for law enforcement. None of these tropes were ever accurate, but Republicans’ visceral reaction to the cultural, racial, and social upheavals of the ‘60s still gave them plenty of fodder to concoct and project an image of themselves for decades as stewards of moral propriety and the rule of law.
As it happened, neither of the first two of those stereotypes survived the calamitous administration of George W. Bush, as the colossal malfeasance of the Iraq war and the 2007-8 financial crisis made them painfully untenable, but it wasn’t until the Trump administration when the “law and order” facade really came tumbling down. From 2016 onward, Republicans’ tolerance of the thoroughly abject criminality under Trump’s auspices soared to unimaginable heights as Republican voters and elected officials alike twisted themselves into knots to justify their tolerance of Trump’s obvious corruption.
It wasn’t long before that acceptance of criminal behavior had extended itself to condoning violence perpetrated in the name of conservatism, as the GOP began to embrace domestic terrorism and vigilantism, especially when committed in furtherance of racism, the primary impetus motivating most Republican dogma. Egged on by Trump, the party began to quickly cultivate white supremacists and domestic terrorists who had previously been consigned to the outer, unmentionable fringes of “respectable” right-wing politics, but now felt welcomed by the party’s mainstream.
Never was this selective embrace of “Republican-friendly” criminal behavior and violence more evident than when it served their own party’s direct political interests, like it did on Jan. 6, 2021. Since that time, the Republican Party has continued to spiral downward into “normalizing” political violence, to the point where such violence committed in the name of achieving conservative outcomes is not only tolerated, it is all but encouraged, with the rule of law be damned. This new ethic of accepting violence as a means to Republican ends, amply displayed by Trump’s recent statements, tweets, and public appearances, is about to take center stage for all Americans to witness in the upcoming Republican primaries. One of the primary issues will be whether to pardon the criminals convicted of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol.
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On the grand scale of sheer rot infused into the Republican body politic by Trump, his abuse of the federal pardon power has been one of the least discussed, but it arguably constitutes the most revealing example of the complete moral bankruptcy of Trump himself, but now of the Republican party as a whole. Historically, Trump is one of the few chief executives in our nation’s history who appears to have interpreted that anachronistic power to actually enlist his political allies in the planning of future crimes himself rather than simply to exonerate past ones by others.
There were a bevy of pardons purportedly sought in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol by those Republicans (such as Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry and Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs) who allegedly aided and abetted Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. This suggests that many committed their acts with the expectation that they would, at some future date, receive executive clemency from Trump in exchange for their “loyalty,” particularly if (as it turned out) their efforts met with failure.
Trump has declared that, if reelected, he will pardon many—if not all—of the people convicted of the attacks on U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the attempt by a violent mob to prevent Congress’ lawful certification of the 2020 election results. Those attacks resulted in the deaths of at least seven (and likely nine) people, including five police officers, while at least 140 known law enforcement personnel were reportedly injured during the multiple hours-long melee. The total cost of the attacks, in terms of property damage, repairs, and medical treatment to the injured, has been estimated to exceed $30 million.
As of March 2023, over 1,000 people had been charged with offenses in connection with the Capitol assault. These charges have thus far yielded over 500 guilty pleas, with at least 485 sentenced for various crimes to date, including several who have received lengthy prison sentences for their roles in planning and perpetrating the attacks. As was demonstrated this month, several of those who planned the attack have been convicted of seditious conspiracy to overthrow the United States government.
Trump’s abuse of the pardon power to further his own political ends was well-established long before Jan. 6. His pardons of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, two convicted criminals operating within Trump’s orbit who acted to advance his candidacy and presidency, for example, were particularly egregious examples of his willingness to use that power to insulate himself from potential criminal charges.
If Trump, with his long history of flouting the law, were the only one guilty of such corrupt abuse, this phenomenon might be written off as just another example of Trump’s uniquely criminal mindset. But with the Republican party’s near-total submission to Trump’s domination, the wielding of potential pardons to convicted criminals—including those guilty of the Capitol attacks—has quickly become a litmus test for those Republicans aspiring to the presidency. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, has already declared he will consider pardoning those involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Less viable candidates for the GOP nomination have taken a more measured, mealy-mouthed approach. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, while indicating it was “not something [he] would do,” has refused to say that taking such a position would be inherently disqualifying.
Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, for his part, has ruled out a “blanket pardon” for all of the Jan. 6 criminals, but said he would leave individual cases open to individual review. Other potential candidates, such as Nikki Haley, have trodden even more carefully, declaring they don’t have enough information about individual rioters to make such a decision, while broadly condemning the attacks themselves as criminal acts. Notably, Haley has not made a similar calculation with regard to Daniel Penny, whose chokehold recently killed a homeless Black man named Jordan Neely on a New York City subway, making Penny himself a conservative hero in right-wing media. Haley has urged that he be pardoned, whatever the result of his trial.
This willingness to condone violence in the name of Republican goals has filtered throughout the party’s most prominent ranks. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who also reportedly aspires to the GOP nomination, declared he would seek a pardon for Daniel Perry, a man already convicted by a Travis County jury for murdering a Black Lives Matter protester. The plaudits showered by right-wing media on Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two Black Lives Matter protesters, and the prior conservative rush to embrace George Zimmerman, who killed unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin, presaged this same considered endorsement of violence by the right, when such violence was inflicted on Black people or liberals.
So did the malevolent glee and conspiracy-mongering exhibited by the right-wing and Fox News to the vicious assault on Paul Pelosi. And so do the statements of DeSantis this past week, when he told Fox News his goal was to “destroy leftism” in this country.
The fact that an outsized number of the attackers on Jan. 6 were prior offenders, many with weapons charges and a history of violence and domestic abuse, and the fact that many have been arrested on other charges since the attacks, is not a concern for Republicans. The fact that many of those were convicted specifically as a consequence of their violent acts and plans to inflict even more violence on Jan. 6 is equally irrelevant. Trump, DeSantis, and Abbott all know this, which is why they continue to incite their voters with violence-tinged rhetoric.
Because, for the hardcore base of Republican voters—the ones who will vote in the GOP primaries—these people are now political symbols. In the eyes of the Republican faithful, they are, as Trump recently put it, simply victims of a “very unfair” system of justice targeting conservative “patriots.” It’s doubtful that most Republican voters know the degree of organization, planning, or even the actual scale of violence that occurred on Jan. 6, and (based on the polling) it’s even more doubtful that they actually want to know. Such are the consequences of living in an insular, social media-fed information bubble in which most rabid Trump supporters exist.
Predictably, Republican officials have largely responded to being called out for this new, public embrace of violence by whattaboutism, equating the Jan. 6 criminals to Black Lives Matter protesters, or other exercises in projection. The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, however, were largely peaceful and resulted in very little property damage. That fact is even more remarkable considering that they involved millions of people nationwide and went on for months. But more to the point, they were a reaction to systematic police abuses and violence—“protests” in the classic sense of the word—and thus reflected a far different ethic than the rioters of Jan. 6, whose goal was to nullify a lawful national election through violence.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, interviewed last week by CNN’s Jake Tapper, probably articulated the position of Republicans toward violence, even without intending to do so.
TAPPER: DeSantis said on day 1 as POTUS he would consider pardoning people convicted of crimes in connection with January 6. Is that disqualifying?
SUNUNU: No, it's not disqualifying ... I think in this day and age there's nothing disqualifying for any candidate, unfortunately.
For Republicans, that’s absolutely true. There is little that the Republican base will refuse to condone at this point by their candidates, least of all endorsing acts of violence inflicted on liberals and Democrats by people carrying the Republican banner. Because that’s what they want.
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